Bobohizans: The shamans of Sabah teeter between old and new worlds

Bobohizans are still called upon to perform thanksgiving rituals or to appease spirits.
Bobohizans are still called upon to perform thanksgiving rituals or to appease spirits.

KOTA KINABALU, June 8 — Even though the person in front of us was clad in the traditional Kadazan gaung of a gold-trimmed black shirt and holding the spiritual kombuongo talisman, it was hard to believe this is a Bobohizan — the spiritual shaman or ritual specialist of the indigenous Borneo tribe.

For one, Adam Gontusan is not a woman.

Most Bobohizans are betel nut-chewing women with wrinkled faces and a wise disposition. Even standing against the authentic backdrop of a wood and bamboo hut in Monsopiad Heritage Village, at the heartland of the Kadazan people in Penampang, the 25-year-old Gontusan is hardly the picture of a traditional Bobohizan.

But modern technology, lifestyle changes and Western ideas over the decades have changed many traditions of this, the most populous tribe in Sabah.

Cultural keeper

Most Bobohizans are women as traditionally, men were the hunters.
Most Bobohizans are women as traditionally, men were the hunters.

The Bobohizan’s role in the Kadazan community was a pivotal one.

They were doctors to the sick, advisors to the troubled, midwife to the pregnant, mothers to the community, mediator in conflicts, keeper of the culture but above all, the spiritual leader.

“They are essentially the expert on spiritual matters and ritual specialists. Kadazans beliefs are rooted to spirits in Nature and the Bobohizan is the medium between our world and that of the spirits... to maintain harmony between the two worlds,” said Kadazandusun Language Foundation chief executive officer Rita Lasimbang.

“When matured, they are also the top of the social order, followed by the village chiefs and then the warriors,” said Lasimbang.

To become a Bobohizan, years of “Bobohizan school” followed by even more years of apprenticeship are needed to permanently etch the many inait or ritual prayers in one’s memory, along with cultural knowledge, beliefs and practices passed on orally and  through observation.

The practitioners are most often women, as the men’s primary job was to hunt while the women took care of the home.

In sub-ethnic groups like the Dusun Darat in Kota Belud, they are known as Bobolian, while to the Dusun Lotud in Tuaran, they are referred to as Tantagas. Their language and rituals may differ but they serve the same purpose.

“Before, people came to me for natural remedies, and I used plants my aunt and mother taught me about. Any reason they don’t feel right, they come to us. Sometimes, people feel their departed relatives are still roaming the house and I have to ‘meet’ them to find out what is wrong,” said a Tantagas from Tuaran, who declined to be named.

She said these requests have lessened over the years, although she was called upon to contact the spirit mountains following last year’s deadly earthquake in June.

For the majority of Sabahans, the most they will see of the Bobohizan is the Magavau thanksgiving ceremony which plays out publicly at the uber popular state-level Harvest Festival.

Penampang’s last hope for a Bobohizan

Adam Gontusan is an apprentice Bobohizan and feels it is his calling.
Adam Gontusan is an apprentice Bobohizan and feels it is his calling.

Gontusan had a typically middle class urban upbringing in the state capital, the second son of a cafe owner who brought the whole family to church every Sunday.

“Growing up in a Catholic family, I never thought I would end up doing this, but when you get a calling, you follow it,” he said with a smile.

Gontusan’s early mentor was the sixth direct descendant of legendary Kadazan warrior Monsopiad, the late Dousia Moujing and his wife, both of whom were Bobohizan during their time. But they, along with other elder Bobohizan in Penampang, were too old and not able to conduct any rituals or fully pass along their knowledge.

Still, he persisted and with the support of his family, is currently learning from a Bobohizan in Kimanis, a town about a 90-minute drive from Kota Kinabalu.

Gontusan, now the assistant cultural manager at the cultural village, used to get some flak for his unconventional undertaking but is often able to silence his critics by showing his old Kadazan language skills.

“Memorising the inait – prayers—is not easy, the language is old, complex, and there is a lot to memorise. But I am really into it,” he said.

His services are mainly called on for rituals  to rid houses or people who are being bothered by evil spirits and he has to conduct exorcisms — people no longer need help with herbal remedies or spiritual guidance.

A Bobohizan’s tools are the kombuongo—strings of pellets made from a swamp grass where his personal guiding spirit or divato resides, the sindavang — brass instruments for a repetitive sound and his padang – a sword for protection.

Gontusan also covers himself in a black sarong while they chant and enter a trance where he is no longer conscious of his actions or conversation.

“When I start the ritual and enter the world of the spirits, I am no longer aware of what I am saying, and those around me have to listen in order to hear what conversations are taking place. It is also during chants that my third eye is opened and I can see spirits,” he said.

A dying culture

Bobohizans preserve the unique beliefs of the Kadazan people.
Bobohizans preserve the unique beliefs of the Kadazan people.

Gontusan is one of two people in Penampang pursuing the art of the Bobohizan, a jarring comparison to its heyday when each village in Sabah used to have at least one.

“Actually, it doesn’t bode well for the young ones, even if there is interest there are no senior Bobohizans left here from that era. In other districts, there are also few or no new learners left. The new generations might not get to know what a real Bobohizan can do,” said Lasimbang.

Part of the reason of their rapid decline, both in numbers and significance, is the introduction of organised religion, be it Christianity or Islam over the decades which conflicts with the beliefs of Kadazan spiritualism.

Gontusan said the younger generation are also not interested in the beliefs of the old days, with so many other distractions of the modern world.

“It’s also just not a big part of the lifestyle now, and a lot of work for not a lot of returns,” he said.

However, Lasimbang has seen a revival of interest recently, as people are now eager to preserve their culture or at least marry it with their current beliefs.

“You see adaptations of some rituals and customs into their own faiths. For instance, on the 7th day ritual, where family members of the dead switch off all lights and the spirit of the dead will return, Christians may still conduct the ritual but with a different meaning — like turning off the darkness and going into the light.

“You can say that we are at a transition period. Things are not so clear cut as people are adapting their new religion with older cultural beliefs. But we might see a new kind of belief emerging,” she said.

In other districts, some of the Bobohizan are practising Christians and Muslims and somehow marry the two religions.

“I think this is the new generation. Before people used to condemn this practice as evil witchcraft. But now I see that they are beginning to relearn and appreciate this part of their culture.

“But I’m very happy to continue preserving this practice, even if I am the only one,” Gontusan said.

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